Ontario Woodland Caribou

In January 2015 the Minitsry of Natural Resources and Forestry released the "State of the woodland Caribou Resource Report". Virtually all caribou populations in Ontario were showing decline.

The following article by Environment North Board member, Julee Boan, was originally published in the Chronical Journal on February 4, 2015.

To read the report (three parts) go to https://www.ontario.ca/environment-and-energy/state-woodland-caribou-resource-report-part-1.

Woodland caribou in decline, future uncertain

While Santa's reindeer were resting after their annual deliveries, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) mailed copies of the State of the Woodland Caribou Resource Report to foresters, environmentalists, community leaders and other engaged citizens. Running almost 1,000 pages, the report, supporting documentation, and policy, represent the most comprehensive assessment to date of caribou habitat and population trends for ranges across the province. The findings are sobering.

Reindeer are called caribou in Canada. Woodland caribou, a subspecies, have vanished from at least 40 percent of their southern range in fewer than 100 years. This decline varies across boreal forest regions, but in 2011, Environment Canada found that most caribou populations in Ontario were "as likely, as not" to be self-sustaining. Put simply, the jury was out as to whether caribou would survive in many areas where they currently live in the province. Although the Environment Canada assessments provided the best estimation of caribou survival at the time, a closer look was needed.

After four years and $11 million of research investment, MNRF's caribou reports estimate that there are at least 3,300 caribou in Ontario, and likely more, primarily located in the band of conifer forests across the northern parts of the province. In addition, there is a small band across the north shore of Lake Superior between Terrace Bay (including the Slate Islands) and Agawa Bay.

During their evaluation, they found that virtually all caribou populations in Ontario were showing decline.

Over a dozen ranges have been identified, as determined by a number of factors, including caribou movement patterns. To assess whether a range is sufficient to sustain caribou, MNRF has used 4 lines of evidence:  population size (the number of animals), population trend (declining, stable or increasing over time), a disturbance assessment (the industrial footprint - both permanent and temporary - at the time of the assessment) and a habitat assessment (a comparison with which kinds of forests they think would exist without management, while considering natural variability). Two ranges - the Sydney range (just south of Red Lake) and the Kesagami (north of Timmins) - are considered high risk, and range conditions have been assessed as "insufficient to sustain caribou" by the Province's researchers. The remaining ranges have varying degrees of uncertainty. For example, the Brightsand caribou range (west of Lake Nipigon and closest to Thunder Bay) showed a rate of population decline - an average of 13 percent per year - that should also be of significant concern. In fact, MNRF has estimated that the Brightsand caribou range has one of the lowest annual caribou survival rates in Ontario. Calf survival is below the number required for a stable population, and according to the MNRF reports, these rates "indicate low recovery potential."  The majority of the range, which overlaps with the Black Spruce and Caribou forests, is allocated for timber harvesting and managed by Resolute Forest Products.  This range has been a source of significant conflict between the company and environmental groups.

There are only two ranges - the Swan and Ozhiski, located in Ontario's far north - where the range conditions have been assessed as "sufficient to sustain caribou".

Ultimately, the onus is on the Province to provide greater certainty for the provision of caribou habitat in areas licensed for forest management that overlap with caribou ranges.  The forest industry has been exempt from Ontario's Endangered Species Act (ESA) since its passage in 2007 and instead held to the provisions of the Crown Forest Sustainability Act (CFSA). While maintaining effective and efficient processes is a responsible goal, ignoring warning signs of further caribou decline, would not be. These range level assessments are based on the best available information and should have a significant influence on forest management plan renewal and implementation.